When militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, stormed the Iraqi city of Tikrit last year, Nezar Ahmed Naji fled in fear of his life. The militants’ storming of Saddam Hussein’s home city signalled the devastating sweep of the jihadist group. Almost one year later, Iraqi army and militia groups, aided by US-led airstrikes, took the city back.
But, for the UK-educated biochemistry professor now living in Kirkuk, the victory was bittersweet. Days after the fighting against jihadi militants had ended, Shia militias blew up and burned down scores of houses, according to witnesses and photographic evidence provided to the Financial Times.
Residents of the Tikrit district called Officers’ Houses included former loyalists to Saddam Hussein but also middle-class university professors and municipal officials who were barely out of high school when the former dictator was deposed.
“Some of the houses belong to officers who have been in the army during the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s,” said Mr Naji.
He learned his house was blown up after he received photos and a video of the damage through a nephew with a friend in one of the militias. “Who did this to my house? They are the Iranian-backed militias.”
The sacking of an entire neighbourhood, allegedly carried out in a spirit of revenge, highlights the sectarian dangers in Iraq’s attempt to rid the country of Isis using a hodgepodge of security forces dominated by Shia militias, some of whom received training in Iran or pledge loyalty to its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The apparently gratuitous destruction came despite pleas for ethical battlefield conduct by both the government of prime minister Haider al-Abadi and Iraq’s senior Shia clergy and the presence of Iraqi troops ostensibly under the command of the central government.
The Iraqi cabinet has since formally placed the volunteer Popular Mobilisation forces, which include both Shia militias and bands of unaffiliated young men seeking to fight Isis, under the control of the prime minister. They had previously been under the command of militia leaders including former transportation minister Hadi al-Ameri and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, both of whom are close to Iran.
The behaviour of the militias in Tikrit, a high-profile operation under close international scrutiny, bodes ill for future attempts to wrest control of Isis territory without further alienating Iraqi Sunni already susceptible to extremist recruitment since the 2003 US invasion toppled the country’s long-standing Sunni-dominated social and political order.
Residents say the Officers’ Houses district in the city’s north was far from the fighting between Isis and Iraqi forces in the city’s south. Perhaps 300 out of 600 houses and at least two mosques were heavily damaged or destroyed, said a ranking municipal worker now involved in the city’s reconstruction.
“This was not nearly remotely as bad as it would have been if there had not been any international attention and if Abadi hadn’t been under so much pressure,” said Kirk Sowell of Uticensis, a risk-management group that focuses on Iraq. “There was a certain amount of revenge.”
The employee, an engineer still working with the government who asked that his name not be published, provided photos showing his house was also destroyed. “All the houses were fine [immediately] after the liberation,” said the engineer, who visited the city to assess damage as part of an official delegation of nearly 30 technicians mandated to restore basic services. “Right after the liberation, a friend of mine in the army there told me that the house and the neighbourhood is fine.”
At one point he broke away from the larger group to check on his house, he said, “taking a high risk” because his district remained under the control of Shia militias. It was then he discovered his house was gone too. “I felt like a nuclear bomb has destroyed the neighbourhood — totally destroyed — and has no residents at all,” he said. “Even in the American action movies I’ve never seen such destruction.”
Ali Qumeit, a 31-year-old professor of business administration, built his six-bedroom home on a 600 sq m plot of land in 2010 to house him, his wife and young child, his mother and brother.
They fled Tikrit for the city of Kirkuk shortly after Isis seized Mosul on June 10, grabbing cash, vital documents and jewellery and leaving everything else behind. A mutual friend sent him pictures of his destroyed house.
“When my wife saw the pictures she cried and felt so sad,” he said. “I cannot describe my feelings when I saw my house destroyed, but we will teach the coming generations that the militias have destroyed our houses.”
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